Jose Luis Santoyo has a hand in two restaurants. One is Promenade Ristorante in downtown Los Angeles, where he is the executive chef. The other is Rosa’s in Cerano, Mexico.
Never heard of Cerano? No wonder. Located in the state of Guanajuato, this town is so small--about 5,000 inhabitants--that it appears on only the most detailed maps.
But Cerano is extremely important to Santoyo. It’s his hometown. His mother, Rosa Maria Santoyo, started Rosa’s there in 1999. Jose Luis helped work out the menu, and brother Miguel is now the manager. Because Cerano is too small to provide a steady flow of customers, the 45-seat restaurant opens only from November through February, the peak season for tourism and business travel in Guanajuato.
Santoyo was cooking at Rosa’s when he got the call to head the kitchen at Promenade. That restaurant opened in July in Promenade Plaza, near the Music Center. At first, it was called Vivere, but it changed its name in August.
At Promenade, Santoyo cooks only Italian food. At Rosa’s, the menu is Mexican mixed with Italian. “The people in Cerano tire of the same thing, over and over, every day. What I wanted was to bring them something different,” he says.
Lunchers at Promenade might have spaghetti bigoletti --imported Italian spaghetti with prawns, clams and a tomato-pesto sauce. In Cerano, they would have espaguetti a la Mexicana with tomatoes, onions, jalapenos and cilantro, made with pasta from Morelia in the neighboring state of Michoacan.
At Promenade, Santoyo makes a grilled vegetable plate with red and yellow bell peppers, yellow squash and Japanese eggplant. At Rosa’s, he would use zucchini and replace the eggplant with fresh mushrooms. “We do have eggplant, but nobody likes it,” he says.
An apple and spinach salad appears at both restaurants, garnished with Gorgonzola as a special at Promenade and with Mexican goat cheese at Rosa’s. Promenade’s clientele can dine on costolette d’agnello al balsamico --roasted baby lamb chops with balsamic sauce. Lamb at Rosa’s becomes lamb stewed with carrots, onions, garbanzos and wine and served with a red guajillo chile salsa and also a green tomatillo and avocado salsa.
When he eats this dish, Santoyo skips the red salsa. “I used to eat chiles like candy. Now my stomach is so hurt, I don’t do that any more,” he says.
Santoyo finds many ways to blend the two cultures. He can turn pizza dough into pan dulce , and tops bruschetta with guacamole. When he says goodbye, it’s never " adios " or " hasta luego " but " ciao .” “I spoke Italian before I spoke English,” he says.
That’s scarcely an exaggeration. When Santoyo came to the United States at 16, he spoke only Spanish. His goal was to help his mother and younger brothers. “I am the oldest. I am the only hope my mother has now,” he thought at the time. “Every week, no matter what, I used to send whatever I could get.”
For a start, he washed dishes at Zucchero, an Italian restaurant now closed. From there he worked through a succession of Italian restaurants until, at 20, he became executive chef of Cucina Paradiso in Redondo Beach. After that, he worked at both Spago restaurants and then returned to Cerano.
It was a fast rise for a teenager with no formal culinary training and so poor he wore one pair of shoes for two years. Here is how he explains it: “I love pasta, plus I really enjoy what I do. Every time I make a dish, it has to be perfect.”
But he also worked extra hard. “Can you give me a chance?” he asked Zucchero’s management, volunteering to work mornings without pay, prepping salads, peeling potatoes. Santoyo worked the double shift for a year. It was like going to school, he says. By the age of 18, he had advanced to line cook at Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills.
During a stint at Drago, Santoyo met Orazio Afrento, who became co-owner of Cucina Paradiso and now has Promenade. Afrento called the young chef as soon as he found a location for the new restaurant.
Today Santoyo, just 24, advises other new arrivals to go after education as he did. Two of his five brothers, Octavio and Sergio, are waiters at Promenade. Miguel also came to Los Angeles but returned to Mexico.
Although Santoyo never went to culinary school, he was an experienced cook by the time he left Cerano. At 10, he was assigned to cook for the family because his parents had separated and his mother had to work. When school let out in the early afternoon, he came home to organize the main meal of the day, which included a soup, a meat dish such as pork with chile, beans, rice and chilaquiles . The evening meal involved meat or caldo de res (beef soup), perhaps fideos (vermicelli) and beans.
Santoyo also was in charge of breakfast. “That was my duty every morning, to cook scrambled eggs for my brothers, and to squeeze orange juice.” This was not an unpleasant chore. “I began to enjoy cooking,” he says.
When times were bad, his mother set a table outside their home and sold tostadas, enchiladas, quesadillas and other antojitos . “She likes to work so hard. She wanted to do everything,” he says. His father, Jose Guisa, is also in the restaurant business. He has a fonda called La Barca in Moroleon, another town in Guanajuato.
A grandfather, Jesus Santoyo, raises produce for Rosa’s, and a grandmother, Salud Almanza, supplies the restaurant with homemade cajeta . The city of Celaya in the state of Guanajuato is famous for this thick soft caramel confection. “I have not tried any cajeta here like that they do over there,” Santoyo says.
A popular dessert in Mexico is crepes with cajeta . Santoyo coats the crepes inside and out with cajeta and arranges them on a platter decorated with strawberries, which are a leading crop in Guanajuato. Sometimes at Rosa’s, the crepes are stuffed with bananas as a variation. Other desserts there include vanilla flan and pan de calabaza (pumpkin bread).
Taking a break at Promenade, Santoyo has a cup of hot chocolate, just like that he drank as a boy for an evening snack, accompanied by bread. The drink was always made with Abuelita brand Mexican chocolate, which Santoyo continues to use here.
Dipping the end of a sugary pan dulce in the rich beverage, he recalls how his mother or grandmother would beat the chocolate with a molinillo (a traditional wooden beater) until foamy.
“I love this,” he says, taking a sip. “Every time I am drinking some chocolate, I think of my mother. Every night, before we went to sleep, we had to have chocolate.”